England April 10, 2012

The England puzzle, and the case for/against Sammy

Which was their batting blip - the Tests against Pakistan or the one in Colombo just now?

The dust is settling on England's fascinating, and, until Colombo's belated redemption, spectacularly unsuccessful Test winter. And that dust is confused. Very confused. Is it covering a landmark underachievement, or an unfortunate blip? Has 2011-12 shown how vulnerable this supposedly world-leading England side is, and how the weaknesses in it had been camouflaged by an unprecedented collective burst of form and some fractured, sub-standard opposition; or has it strangely proved, as suggested by my World Cricket Podcast compadre Daniel Norcross, quite how good they are?

They were, after all, not far from winning four Tests out of five despite having batted for most of the winter like a long-forgotten salad in an abandoned fridge, and they bowled persistently superbly (statistically far better than in 2000-01, when they returned from Asia with two series victories). As soon as the batsmen for the first time applied themselves correctly, they waltzed to a resounding victory. Albeit that the sound that resounded was the echo of the words, "Where the hell was that in the Gulf in January?" rebounding back from outer space.

So many questions remain to be answered. Which was the batting blip - the first four Tests or the last one? Will the Pakistan whitewash remain a scar on this excellent England team's record, or will it prove to be an open wound in which the maggots of doubt have laid out their towels for an interesting year's sunbathing ahead?

Your witness, history. Get back to us in nine months' time with some supporting evidence from (a) this summer's series against an increasingly-determined-but-almost-entirely-unacquainted-with-early-season-English-conditions West Indies, and a probably-should-be-No. 1-side-in-the-Test-world-if-only-they-didn't -keep-tanking-one-nil-series-leads South Africa, and (b) the four Tests in India at the end of the year.

Personally, my expectation is that England will beat West Indies comfortably, draw 1-1 with South Africa, and win narrowly in India, guided by their freshly printed multi-volume Encyclopaedia Of Lessons Learned, which they are no doubt busy scribbling down from their failures this winter.

However, my expectation was that they would win in the UAE against Pakistan, and they managed to avoid doing that in some style, in much the same way that the Titanic managed to avoid overshooting America on its maiden voyage.

And, just as they had not faced high-class spin for a lengthy period before subsiding to Ajmal and Rehman, so they will not have faced the calibre of swing bowling they can expect from Steyn and Philander since Amir and Asif brilliantly hooped them to distraction two years ago before. Just as facing Xavier Doherty in Brisbane, or Mishra and Raina at The Oval, was not ideal preparation for encountering Pakistan's crafty tweakmen in the Gulf, so seeing off Lakmal and Prasad in Colombo, statistically one of cricket history's least penetrating new-ball attacks (their career figures suggesting they offered the incision of an ice scalpel in a sub-Saharan operating theatre), will not have honed England ideally for the South African pace and swing barrage. As preparation for that task, it was about as appropriate as Neil Armstrong training for his rocket trip to the moon by hanging a cantaloupe melon from his bedroom ceiling, saying "5-4-3-2-1-blast-off" and throwing a dart at it.

Luckily, Strauss and his men have time and the West Indies series in which to reactivate their facing-swing-bowling heads. And hope that they work better than they did in 2010. And that England's bowlers continue to provide the grip and penetration of a Viagra-addled boa constrictor, as they have done consistently for the last two years.

Then, in November, England's batsmen will have to switch heads back to the spin-oriented ones that only started showing signs of neural activity briefly in Galle, and only uttered coherent sentences in Colombo. India will enter that series with scores to settle, both with England and, more specifically, with themselves.

They will be hoping by then that they still have a left-arm spinner who can remember how to bowl anything other than four overs of balls speared in at leg stump. Not only has this been England's worst ever winter or summer season against spin (they lost 77 wickets to spin in the five Tests, at a little under 19 runs apiece), but Abdur Rehman and Rangana Herath both returned series hauls of 19 wickets against them. That is more than any left-arm spinner in a series against England since India's Dilip Doshi took 22 in a six-Test rubber 30 winters ago, and more than any non-Indian left-arm spinner since Alf Valentine twirled England to post-war befuddlement in 1950. England are likely to face legspinners Devendra Bishoo and Imran Tahir this summer. I never thought I would write this, but Pragyan Ojha could hold the entire future health of Indian Test cricket in his fingers.

EXTRAS ● Excuse me for largely skipping over the first half of England's Test summer, despite West Indies' impressively cussed all-round performance in the first three days against Australia in Barbados. The Caribbean team's last two early-season tours to England have been pointlessly one-sided and deeply depressing. Darren Sammy's team seems unlikely to cave in as readily as Chris Gayle's did in the two-Test-total-waste-of-time in 2009, but West Indies have lost 12 out of 14 matches in England since they last won a Test here 12 years ago. Excluding tours of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, West Indies have played 65 away Tests since 1997. They have won two of them. And lost 50. I just hope for something resembling cricket to occur.

● Is there a more underrated bowler in world cricket than Sammy? As I write (in between days three and four of the Barbados Test), the West Indian skipper's Test bowling average stands at 29.60. This means that, of all West Indian bowlers to have taken more than 20 Test wickets, Sammy has the best average of anyone who has made their debut since Ian Bishop in 1989 (albeit only by a very slim margin over Jermaine Lawson, which a single boundary at the start of play today would wipe out).

Sammy currently has a better career average than Jimmy Anderson, Morne Morkel, Brett Lee, Zaheer Khan, Umar Gul and Andrew Flintoff. That does not mean he is a better bowler than them, but Sammy's statistics suggest that he is a far better bowler than his action and speed-gun readings suggest he is.

● How much longer can West Indies continue to carry their captain, Sammy? His continued presence in the team, and the fact that he is not a good enough batsman to bat above No. 8, means that only two of a decent crop of Caribbean pacemen can play alongside Sammy and a spinner. Do not be fooled by his Test average of 29.60. It has been boosted by some cheap wickets against Bangladesh, and, excluding a home series against a weak Pakistan batting line-up, and a debut haul of 7 for 66 in England five years ago, in series against major opposition Sammy has not averaged under 34 runs per wicket, and has taken a wicket on average once every 14.2 overs. He might be forging a more dogged and disciplined West Indies team, for which all cricket fans should be wiping their brows in relief, but his limitations as a bowler are negating what could be their strongest attacking suit - an improving and increasingly potent pace attack.

● Stats are confusing.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer